Business & Technology

Eco:nomics

Your intrepid blogger heads to yet another green conference; promises to twitter some tweets

I'm at the airport, getting ready to head out to Santa Barbara for the second annual Wall Street Journal Eco:nomics conference. (Yes, flying on planes makes me a big fat hypocrite earthf*cker -- I eagerly await my NYT profile.) The WSJ conference is interesting, mainly due to the contrasting influences of the top-notch WSJ news team and the WSJ editorial board, world headquarters for unrepentant far-right fruitcakes. So you get Al Gore and Amory Lovins, but then you also get Bjorn Lomborg and Vaclav Klaus. (Klaus gets the last word, with his session titled "Global Reality Check: From Europe to China to the U.S., how realistic is a big green push amid an imploding economy?" Anybody care to guess his answer in advance?) In between you have an interesting mix of truly innovative and green-minded business leaders and ... business leaders primarily concerned with positioning themselves to profit from whatever happens next. Thus you get sessions like the hilariously titled, "Power Play: What will keep the lights on: nuclear energy or 'clean coal'?" Whee! The really big news here -- and you'll want to notify all your friends and family about this ASAP -- is that I'll be twittering from the conference. OMG! you say. OMFG! you add. Yes, it's true. I'll be delving into the brave new world of 2008, because clearly the main flaws of blogging are its excessive length, depth, and grammatical exactitude! I don't even know enough about Twitter to tell you how to follow my twittering. But if you happen to know how, it's all going on under the name david_h_roberts. Again: david_h_roberts. Feel the Future! [Note from more tech-savvy editor: David's Twitter feed is here. And right below.]

A concentrating solar breakthrough

Sheer number of solar advancements suggests that cheap solar electricity is coming soon

Concentrating solar power is a well-known approach to lowering the cost of solar electricity. You focus sunlight from a large area onto a small one, the same way a magnifying glass can set a piece of newspaper on fire, using one small, high-quality solar cell and a concentrator for a lower total cost than hundreds of slightly cheaper cells. (Or you can use the concentrated heat to drive a heat engine, but not in the example we are about to discuss.) Morgan Solar has a smart variation on this under development. They start with a clever acrylic concentrator that uses pure optical guiding to concentrate solar energy about 50 times, around the same results as a Fresnel lens, but without the need for curves or a non-zero focus. This already moderately concentrated solar is then concentrated further by a much smaller glass concentrator that also needs no air gap. Because neither concentrator requires an air gap, a tiny solar cell is attached directly to the glass. So you have an eight-inch acrylic concentrator, a glass concentrator the size of an American nickel, and a solar cell the size of a baby's thumbnail.

Algal biodiesel -- also a magic pony

High energy requirements make the manufacture of algal biofuel prohibitive

Robert Rapier has an important post on the prospects for algal biodiesel:

Environmental interests vs. environmental advocates

South Carolina misses an opportunity for energy efficiency with Duke's Save-A-Watt program

I recently interviewed a guy who explained his approach to long-term contracting to me as follows: "always structure your contracts to ensure that your counter-party makes money, and you'll never have a bad contract negotiation." It's a great point, too often lost by those who are convinced that all negotiations are zero-sum games. Lest one think that hard-nosed, selfish negotiating is limited to greedy financial types, I bring you this story from South Carolina, where a change in utility regulation to incentivize energy efficiency was blocked by environmentalists and consumer advocates on the grounds that it would give too much money to utilities. It seems to me that they have made a big mistake. Regulated utilities have no incentive to invest in energy conservation or generation efficiency. Moreover, they have no incentive to encourage their customers to make investments that would save them money, since the standard guaranteed-return + cost-pass-through pricing model doesn't let them keep the gain. This doesn't make utility managers bad guys; it just means that they are responding to a bad set of signals. If your parents give your big brother a cookie every time he punches you, your big brother is not entirely to blame for the welts on your arm. Jim Rogers knows this, and proposed his Save-A-Watt program to give his company, Duke Energy, a financial incentive to encourage their customers to conserve. Consumer advocates and environmentalists opposed, broadly on the basis that we shouldn't pay utilities to do things they're supposed to do anyway. The South Carolina utility commission agreed: ... they objected specifically to the heart of the plan: Duke's request to get a financial return for power plants it doesn't have to build. To be quite clear, Duke has many flaws. They like expensive coal plants. They've tried to do some things that look an awful lot like gaming carbon markets. And they are a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the BS-machine that is ACCCE. But that doesn't mean we can't give them credit for trying to reform the rules, so that they can sever (however partially) the disconnect between the interests of their shareholders and their customers (not to mention the environment). It seems a shame to me that those efforts were blocked in the name of the environment and consumer. Ultimately, this issue is much bigger than Save-a-Watt, Duke, and South Carolina. Our regulatory system desperately needs reform, and effective reform will necessarily create massive wealth transfers away from those who benefit from the status quo. It was ever thus, and is why vested interests are always so conservative. Those who seek reform therefore have four choices:

The myth of simple market solutions

No particular policy instrument is appropriate for all environmental problems

I introduced my previous post by noting that there are several prevalent myths regarding how economists think about the environment, and I addressed the "myth of the universal market" ­-- the notion that economists believe that the market solves all problems. In response, I noted that economists recognize that in the environmental domain, perfectly functioning markets are the exception, not the rule. Governments can try to correct such market failures, for example by restricting pollutant emissions. It is to these government interventions that I turn this time. A second common myth is that economists always recommend simple market solutions for market problems. Indeed, in a variety of contexts, economists tend to search for instruments of public policy that can fix one market by introducing another. If pollution imposes large external costs, the government can establish a market for rights to emit a limited amount of that pollutant under a so-called cap-and-trade system. Such a market for tradable allowances can be expected to work well if there are many buyers and sellers, all are well informed, and the other conditions I discussed in my last posting are met. The government's role is then to enforce the rights and responsibilities of permit ownership, so that each unit of emissions is matched by the ownership of one permit. Equivalently, producers can be required to pay a tax on their emissions. Either way, the result -- in theory -- will be cost-effective pollution abatement, that is, overall abatement achieved at minimum aggregate cost. The cap-and-trade approach has much to recommend it, and can be just the right solution in some cases, but it is still a market.

Planet f&%#ers

Electronics industry takes own temperature at Greener Gadgets

Hm. Where are all the gadgets at the Greener Gadgets conference, a one-day acronym festival -- EPEAT, ROHS, LCA, anyone? -- covering topics from e-waste recycling to the economic benefits of going green. I was expecting to see cell phones crafted of discarded water bottles or a smog-powered BlackBerry. At least they've got the photovoltaic backpacks. Mostly, the exhibitors' hall and panels include an odd amalgam of entrepreneurs and industry analysts, makers and regulators, who are far less focused on the gadget itself than on where it comes from and where it goes on its cradle-to-cradle journey through the world. "We need to focus on the system, and not just on the gadget," said Intel's Director of Environment and Energy Policy Stephen Harper. They're just as focused on where the gadget goes to die, an integral part of said system. As keynote speaker Saul Griffith, co-founder of Squid Labs and Makani Power, told us, "There's no 'away' to throw something anymore -- we know where everything goes."

Remake your living

Tips for landing a green job

Ah, the daily grind: An endless progression of dreary days with that pathetic guy in the next cubicle who spends half his time complaining and the other half in loud personal conversations for which the phrase “too much information” was invented. And that boss of yours? One shudders. But fear not. You can remake your living and land a green job — all in one fell swoop. Here are some career-planning basics to get you started. Got goals? One-year periods are just about perfect for career planning. Annual plans are just long enough to accommodate multiple projects that require lots …

Sales figured

Survey finds Americans still want earth-friendly products during recession

A survey released Wednesday confirms that Americans remain interested in buying environmentally responsible products even during the recession. Conducted by Boston communications firm Cone Inc., the finding is the latest in a string of surveys drawing cheery conclusions about green spending. According to Cone, about 34 percent of 1,087 adult consumers said they are more likely to buy green-leaning products in the current economic climate, while 44 percent said their environmental shopping habits have not changed because of the economy. Only eight percent said they were less likely to buy earth-friendly products due to the downturn. The survey — whose …

Meat Wagon: Layoffs at the factory farm

Farmers take the hit as the CAFO model comes under pressure

In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries. ----- The industrial meat giants have entered a crisis phase. As I've reported before, the world's biggest chicken packer, Pilgrim's Pride, is languishing in bankruptcy, squeezed by high feed costs, its own addiction to cheap capital from Wall Street, now dried up, and ruthless competition from rival Tyson. Facing a similar situation, Smithfield Foods, the globe's biggest pork packer and hog producer, announced it's shuttering six plants and hacking away 1,800 jobs. Pilgrim's Pride has deftly used its bankruptcy to shunt much if the pain onto the backs of its farmer-suppliers, The Wall Street Journal reports (see extremely interesting related video). The article shows the massive risks required of the farmers who supply the nation with meat. Get this:

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